It’s a warm Thursday afternoon and I’m juggling a cranky, teething baby in one hand while trying to put together a simple dinner of braised chicken and mesclun mix with the other. Through the open front door drift sounds of the neighborhood kids playing a game of tag, a lawnmower starting up, the smell of fresh-cut grass mingling with the stench of too many dryer sheets being used next door. I’m staring into the pantry trying to find something carby to round out our meal when I hear it:
“Breeeeaad for sale! Fresh bread for sale!” I book it to the front door, baby bouncing on my hip, and grab the wallet from my purse. Stepping onto our stoop I wave, “Over here!” A tanned, toned cyclist pulling a long trailer arcs across the street, pulling to a stop in front of the house. The sign on the bike trailer reads “August First Fresh Bread” – it’s the bread peddler. He hits the kickstand and swings his leg around the bike so he’s facing us, smiling. “How’s it going? Hey buddy!” He waves at the baby.
They’re out of jalapeño cheddar already, but a simple baguette will do the trick. He hops up and pops the top off one of the plastic totes secured to the the trailer, then pulls out a long thin, golden loaf and hands it over. Before I can finish getting my cash out, the baby has his mouth on the bread. A sweet, floury smell fills my nose as he crunches it down between his jaws. We head back inside and within minutes his older brother and father are home and we’re gathered around the table.
Finally, I take my own bite of the baguette. It’s flavor is subtle, sweet, the tang of sourdough hitting only at the end. “Yum,” the 4-year-old mumbles through a mouthful, pieces of bread flying out his mouth, scattered around his plate and the floor.
Photo courtesy of August First Bakery and Café
The setting is Burlington, Vermont, a small city on the eastern shore of Lake Champlain. Called “locavore capital of New England” by The Boston Globe, Burlington boasts a thriving food scene, largely influenced by—and now at the forefront of—the farm-to-table movement. While the people of Vermont may still be outnumbered by cows, the state also boasts the highest number of cheesemakers per capita in the entire United States, and Burlington is home to no fewer than a dozen good bakeries, some of which are amazing.
August First Bakery and Café opened about eight years ago, in a converted garage on the outskirts of downtown. On nice days they roll up the old metal garage doors to connect the café with the porch and sidewalk beyond. August First is owned and operated by wife and husband team Jodi Whalen and Phil Merrick, who named it after the poem by poet Hayden Carruth. Along with bread and pastries baked on premises, they serve a full menu for breakfast, lunch and Sunday brunch. They’re known for their sourdough, which has an “amazing crunch outside with soft flavorful warmth inside,” according to loyal customer Heather Chernyshov.
The idea for bread-by-bike grew out of a cherished childhood memory. Said co-owner, Jodi Whalen, “I grew up in Pennsylvania with my grandparents, and a local bakery used to come around. They would come into my grandmother’s kitchen with a case, and she would let me pick out a pastry. It’s one of my fondest memories from that time.”
Now she’s passing the tradition on, to a whole new generation and community.
“It’s just so Burlington,” said local mom Angela Duquette-Catlett. “It’s so quintessential Vermont, that we would have bike delivery of bread. And the guy is so wonderful.”
There are several guys, actually, and women; each with their own particular approach to bread peddling.
“Breeeaad! Get your fresh… baked… breeeead!” one calls, drawing out each word.
“August! First! Fresh! Bread for sale!” another one barks, pizzicato-style.
They’ve all perfected the art of being heard, because their paycheck depends on it. There’s no base pay for the job. Instead, bike peddlers make 30% of every sale —and they work hard for it. While Vermont is known for its snowy winters, summers here get hot, and the city is essentially a series of hills sloping upward from the shores of Lake Champlain; many of them steep.
Photo courtesy of August First Bakery and Café
Bikers hit specific neighborhoods on certain days of the week, but you never know what time they’ll be peddling by. That’s part of the fun, says Whalen, “People ask us all the time if they can order ahead, or they’ll suggest we have a tracking device so they can find out where the riders are.” In other words, they’re looking for a phone app, to help them predict, plan for and manage their bread purchase. Of course: we’ve come to expect this convenience as part of modern life.
But don’t expect August First to offer an app for that any time soon. According to Whalen, the unpredictability of the bread delivery is part of the experience.
“There are very few surprises anymore. Spontaneous joy doesn’t happen as much as it used to when I was a kid, so it’s kind of cool to still provide that for people.”
And plenty of customers agree. Said Duquette-Catlett, “I like the fact that there are days when we can’t get bread. Because of that, the bread is a treat – kind of like the ice cream truck would be, if we liked ice cream.” But, as it turns out, her seven-year-old son prefers bread.
The ice cream truck will drive by blasting it’s music and nobody will say a word, but when the bread biker comes calling, her son runs to find her. “Mommy it’s the bread man! We’ve got to get a loaf of bread!”
Sometimes they’ll get a cookie, but usually just a loaf of fresh bread, which her son will start to eat right there in the street, out of the bag.
Local kids love getting bread-by-bike in the summertime. Once they’re zooming around on their own bikes, you’ll often see and hear them emulating the peddlers, their little voices calling out, “Breeead! Fresh bread for sale!”
I asked Whalen if she’d ever heard the local kids playing bread bike.
“Yes! The first time I heard it, I cried. That was my vision, to pass on something I experienced as a child that was just so magical. That right there is worth all the money in the world.”